News & Views

Opinion / Can Adland Do Good?

by Contagious Contributor

JWT's Melissa Parsey argues that in today's social world, societal brands are needed, and will be rewarded for their efforts

When I decided to make the jump into advertising, the first question the interviewer asked me was, 'Why on earth would you want to work in marketing?' At the time, I was working as a teacher at an inner-city state school. As I was later told: 'You did it the wrong way round - most people go into teaching afterward to save their souls...'

There's something unnerving when people, half-jokingly, call their job of choice the 'dark side,' even if it's easier to say than 'I think we're part of the problem.' It nods to a bigger issue: Adland has for a long time willingly perpetuated the belief that it's a moral vacuum. In doing so, it has ironically undersold its true value - that it is, and increasingly will be, a powerful advocate in driving purposeful brand actions in the world.

There's been a sea change under way for the past few years. A recent research piece from Harvard, Berkley and Michigan completed meta-analysis across 167 independent studies, correlating business performance and ethics. They found that the performance of "ethical" companies was better than those of "unethical" companies in the long-term. Further regression analysis attributed 13 percent of the "abnormal" performance of these companies to CSR activities. 

If that's too academic, you can also point to a growing number of breakout stars across categories. In 2011, Patagonia reported 30 percent annual sales growth compared with an industry average of 4 percent - the same year it launched a campaign inviting consumers not to buy its products, and instead go to its branded secondhand clothes channel on eBay. Last year, Chipotle was on par with Burger King in revenue, and Google was crowned the No. 1 place to work by employees. Consumers are leading with their feet and their dollars. Nielsen's global survey "Consumers Who Care," published in August, found that half of respondents would be willing to reward companies that gave back to society. This is compared to just 38 percent two years ago.

You could rightly argue correlation does not equal causation; that some organisations can afford to play the long game; or that it's easy to pick winners after the fact. But then these are just tips of the iceberg. What they point to is a shift in consumer expectations, led by a new sense of shared value - shaped by economic, social and political tensions, and facilitated through technology. The result is that in today's social world, societal brands are needed, and will be rewarded for their efforts, and that includes ad agencies. As stewards of these brands and as organisations, we, too, have to question what our legacy will be.

It's not exactly a renaissance, more a return to common sense. If you look back to Messrs. Ford, Cadbury and Lever, their empires were built on a sense of civic duty that went beyond CSR or the bottom line. Likewise today, organisations have realised having a sound purpose pays dividends. IBM, for example, didn't try to save the rain forest or pandas; they honed in on the thing they were best at that made clients choose them and people want to work for them: to make the world work better. Other "purposeful" organisations have planted their purpose in culture, giving the brand a bigger role to play: championing real beauty, for example, which is far more interesting than talking about soap. All, of course, while delivering these messages in compelling, creatively excellent ways. Purpose alone doesn't equate to Cannes Lions, but it can often lead to better briefs that in turn get creatives excited and allow you to do work that means more.

Advertising is an industry that prides itself in leading culture and orchestrating wide-scale change. Now it has the opportunity to put its money where its mouth is and prove not only why certain brands should exist, but likewise why it should too. For the first time in a long time, there's a clear opportunity to put the "dark arts" to good use, delivering tangible results for organizations and their communities. Next year marks the ad agency's 150th birthday; perhaps we're finally old enough to realize that at our best we've always done more than just sell soap, and at our worst that's all we thought we could do.

Melissa Parsey is planning director, strategic lead JWT Ethos NY
Her article responds to Ethics Inc. by Arwa Mahdawi